MORGANTOWN, W.VA. -- Fewer apples are ripening in the orchards of West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia this year, but the fruit on the tree is bigger and this season's harvest should equal last year's, a plant scientist says.

"We had very little damage from frost earlier this year," said Dr. Steve Blizzard, assistant director for plant sciences at West Virginia University.

"However, we had some cloudy weather during the trees' thinning period this spring which caused more apples to fall than usual," he said recently.

"I have a suspicion that the size of the fruit will make up for the number and we'll harvest about the same number of bushels as last year."

Apple trees naturally shed some of their fruit each year as part of the growing process, Blizzard said. Dry conditions during the past two years combined with the overcast skies to aggravate the so-called "June drop."

"There was a considerable drop this year from Virginia all the way through Pennsylvania to New York," said Dr. Steve Miller of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Appalachia Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville.

Ron Slonaker, general manager of Jefferson Orchards Inc. in Kearneysville, said he expects the harvest to be as much as 20 percent less than the 225,000 bushels of apples harvested at the orchard last yea